Old Douglass auditorium seats find new home at Sevier Middle

Rick Wagner • Feb 7, 2009 at 12:00 AM

KINGSPORT — A part of the old high school that served African-Americans during segregation lives on at Sevier Middle School, which housed the original Dobyns-Bennett High School.

Thanks to Janice Allen, a bookkeeper at Sevier with a sharp eye for a newspaper photograph, Kingsport City Schools has done some creative reuse of 121 old auditorium seats from V.O. Dobbins Community Center, formerly Douglass High School, by moving them to Sevier.

Sevier Principal Jocelyn Lyons said Allen noticed in a January Kingsport Times-News photograph of a Douglass reunion that the Dobbins auditorium seats there were very similar to seats at Sevier.

Lyons had already planned to ask for funds to replace the seats in the 2009-10 school budget. The estimated cost was $40,000 for about 800 new seats.

“She came to me and said they look like the seats already in our auditorium,” Lyons said. “It was actually a very good find.”

Sevier school officials thought the old seats might find a new home at Sevier and contacted the office of Superintendent Richard Kitzmiller.

Lyons said the auditorium is the least-changed section of Sevier, which underwent a major renovation in the 1990s.

“As a history major, I sure wouldn’t have wanted to have lost that tradition,” Lyons said. “I’m glad we got to keep (the older) seats.”

David Carper, facilities director of the school system, said he approached David Austin, who oversees the city’s surplus, about the school system using some of the old Douglass/Dobbins seats.

Carper said he often dreaded calls from Sevier Assistant Principal Randy Quillin to come repair the auditorium seats at Sevier because parts and replacements are scarce.

“Over the years, wooden chair parts are no longer available,” Carper said, explaining that more modern plastic theater seats would not fit into the architecture of Sevier and would be expensive, and that padded theater-type seats would be prohibitively expensive.

“It cost us zero, but it cost us about six days of labor,” Carper said. “Now you’ve got maximum capacity again, which you haven’t had in years.”

The Douglass/Dobbins seats were close enough in design and color that they were used in the balcony at Sevier. He said that freed up some of the old Sevier seats to be used to keep the main floor seating in order and gives the school system a supply of an additional 35 or 40 Douglass seats for use as replacements and parts for the balcony.

“They’re not the same,” Carper said. “They’re lighter colored. But they were able to work for us.”

So 121 seats were moved from Dobbins to the Sevier balcony, not counting the seats to be used for later replacements or parts.

“We ought to be good for 10 years or so,” Carper said.

Sevier Middle was the original campus of D-B, from construction in 1926 to 1968, when the current D-B building along Fort Henry Drive opened.

V.O. Dobbins is a city-owned community center located between Louis and Wheatley streets in Riverview. The building served as Kingsport’s blacks-only school from 1951 to 1966 and was named Douglass High School. However, Lyons said she believes the building dates back to circa-1920s. Lyons said she understands the first home of Douglass, at the corner of Center and East Sevier streets, replaced the old Oklahoma Grove School for African-Americans.

The community center was named after the longtime Douglass principal.

Kingsport plans to expand and renovate the center, demolishing part and renovating the rest to include room for a new nonprofit center.

The first phase of the $7.1 million project is the demolition of the auditorium, which was deemed to have too much asbestos to be renovated and will become the site of the new nonprofit wing. Demolition is expected to begin this month and will include some asbestos removal.

The city will go out to bid on the renovation and expansion phase of the project in March or April.

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